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Kentucky by Heart: Many of Kentucky’s libraries have separate rooms dedicated to state’s history

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part column on Kentucky collections in the state’s local libraries.

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

The Estill County Library is happy to have a separate local history and Kentucky-related room in its new library. Popular, recent, and duplicate Kentucky items can be found in the main collection. Kentucky Room items are presented as KY-R and regular collection ones are marked KY. “This does not include the books that are uncatalogued in the genealogy room or the massive files that we have,” a spokesperson said.

Estill County Library (Photo from estillpublib.org

Director Tim Gampp of the Rowan County Library noted that they offer the Genealogy Room, which holds all non-circulation information pertaining to Kentucky. Included are biographies, CD-Roms, fictional titles, microfilm, non-fiction titles, and periodicals. “This collection does not include Kentucky authors who write general fiction, children’s, or graphic novels, such as Sue Grafton (fiction), though these authors do have a designation in the catalog that identifies them as Kentucky natives,” said Tim. “We also have some material housed in both the Genealogy Room and in the circulating collection. These often are popular materials by authors like Allan Eckert and some non-fiction local histories when we have multiple copies.”

I’ve spent hours in the Lexington Library’s Kentucky Room over the years, and I must say it has been a joy. On one occasion there, I saw and talked to the noted Kentucky historian, Thomas D. Clark, and later wrote about the experience in this column. Sarah Hubbard, who manages the room, is quite proud of what the Kentucky Room offers to the public. There are over 17,000 items, mostly books but also has microfilm, periodicals, and artifacts.

Tales from Kentucky Room, Lexington Public Library (Photo from www.wuky.org

“In general, this is a research collection, so we primarily focus on nonfiction,” she said. Because of the current pandemic, activities have had to be curtailed or adjusted. “In normal times, we have people come in daily to use our materials, and we often provide quite a bit of help to find resources. We’ve also been branching out online over the past few years. Our digital archive just turned four years old and is growing all the time. It currently contains over 30,000 images (over 4,100 items), and except for the hand-written documents, they are word-searchable.” She noted that the oldest ones you’ll find are of the Kentucky Gazette, which dates back to 1787. The most used items in the archive are the directories, architectural books, local school content, and local government documents and newspapers. The Kentucky Room staff has also put together what Sarah called a “fantastic’ podcast called Tales from the Kentucky Room featuring Lexington interviews about subjects such as cold cases and baseball.

In Campton, the Wolfe County Library is Kentucky-friendly for the popular books, presenting about 500 offerings on a shelf upfront. “We try to make Kentucky books accessible to all,” said a spokesperson. The library also has a non-circulation genealogy collection in a special room.

John Crawford, at the Woodford County Library, explained that the staff often makes “a special effort to acquire books by Kentucky authors… (and) try to give them special consideration when weeding. I look for every reason to keep it in the collection.” Currently, they are not located in a special section, but there could be some changes coming, saying the library “does have plans to expand in the near future. These plans will include a new local history room. It may include space for Kentucky authors—though we are still determining how best to use the shelf space.”

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Surprisingly, the circulation of Kentucky books “isn’t high” at the Green County Library, in Greensburg, said Laura Johnson, “but we have patrons that visit that section regularly to browse for interesting topics. When new items are added to the collection, they seem to circulate well.” The books are located in a special section, with fiction and non-fiction shelved separately, and there are approximately 850 items.

Nelson County’s public library has about 1,200 Kentucky books in a special room. It garners a lot of interest, especially for research purposes. Harlan County’s special Kentucky section has 2,202 books that are checked out regularly. In Glasgow, the Mary Wood Weldon Library has a reference/genealogy section for in-house use with 117 items (98 distinct titles). Shelved in distinct sections, Kentucky fiction numbers 330 items and non-fiction contains 600, and they are requested frequently by cardholders and out-of-town visitors.

The small town of Eminence, home of the Henry County Library, does a lot to encourage the study of Kentucky at their beautiful facilities.

“We have a Kentucky history and genealogy room that doubles as a meeting room for local organizations. There are roughly 300 items in that room ranging from old Kentucky history books that may or may not still be in publication and volumes of genealogy from local families that only we have copies of, as far as I know. Many of the general Kentucky history books circulate regularly. We have a local historian named Mike Grimes who publishes books on various local towns. We keep his books in the collection and they circulate regularly. However, the older materials do not circulate much at all and only see use when local historians come looking for something specific,” said a library spokesperson.

According to Mary Rushing at the Fleming County Library, there are about 2,300 Kentucky items out of a total of nearly 42,000. “In the past,” she said, “we had a Kentucky section. Presently, they are in the mix of the library’s collection. I have been here long enough to remember both and not sure which is the best way to promote Kentucky books. Each book has a ‘Kentucky’ sticker on it. This number does not include the books that are uncatalogued in the genealogy room or the massive files that we have.”

One of the most unique Kentucky collections I discovered is at the Clark County Library, in Winchester, where the Local History & Genealogy section has what library director Julie Maruskin calls “all kinds of Kentucky stuff.” She talked about their large special collection of women’s “charitable cookbooks” from around the state published to raise money for their organizations. Perusing such books, she said, provides “a way to track what organizations belong to and also to track the subject of foodways.” Copies in the collection go as far back as to the 1930s and ‘40s. In writing his book, Kentucky’s Cookbook Heritage: Two Hundred Years of Southern Cuisine and Culture, John Van Willigen spent a lot of time in the library researching the materials, she noted.

Additionally, the section is a popular and ever-growing spot for library customers to research their ancestry, spurred by the prevalence of today’s DNA testing growth. And there is more. Talented staff members Angela Turner and Jennifer Mattern have established a strong resource emphasis on the study of local murder cold cases of the past with their “Murder & Mayhem in Kentucky” initiative. Julie also mentioned the library’s support of local author works and Appalachian literature, especially emerging Appalachian writers.

In this sampling, one can see there are a veritable treasure of Kentucky-related books and materials in local libraries all around the state. I plan to try to visit some of them. And just a note for librarians … If you were not contacted by me or didn’t get a chance to respond (I reached out via email or Facebook messages to about 60 county libraries), feel free to email me at sflairty2001@yahoo.com and I’ll arrange to share in a future column.

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